Silver River by Daisy Goodwin

Gambling, polo and suicide in 19th-century Argentina
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The Independent Culture

For anyone interested in the British class system, Argentina is as good a window on to this ugly world as any. The British built much of the country's infrastructure. Their legacy endures: the exclusive Hurlingham Club, the faded grandeur of Anglo-Argentine estancias, and a stubborn knot of long-term expats.

In this memoir, Daisy Goodwin brings an evocative touch to bear on such curiosities. She descends from an Anglo-Argentine family, the Traills. Two brothers, Robert and Edmund, bought land in the Santa F region in the 1860s, before the railways had been built and the Indians liquidated by General Roca's armies. Yet they lost most of the land because of their nostalgia for England and determination never to "go native". The cultural arrogance that assured much of Britain's success in the Victorian era lay behind the Traills' decline.

One of the problems Goodwin faces is the lack of material. Relying on local history magazines, a boxful of photographs, and family memories, she wisely fictionalises the tale of the early Traills. This allows her to enter the mindsets of Robert, Edmund, and their heirs. This provides the best part of the book, allowing Goodwin to make a poetic reconstruction of the emotions that allowed their potential to be frittered away in gambling, polo and suicide.

However, her intention is not just to tell an interesting family story. She wishes to understand her own dislocated childhood, to explain how her (Traill) mother could have abandoned her when she was five. Her journey back to the Traill lands of Santa F is overcome with personal resonance.

This element of the book is the least satisfactory. Far from purging the English of their class-ridden identity, Argentina enhanced it for the Traills. Few readers will have sympathy for Goodwin's account of her own financial "decline", as she observes without irony that her parents' separation meant "I would never live in SW1 again", but only in an "Edwardian terrace in Shepherd's Bush". The focus on her experience detracts from the family story, which would have worked best alone as a novel. Perhaps those Traill pioneers hoped to repress this class-boundedness in escape to Argentina; but, as Freud knew, this was a classic strategy to ensure that the repressed emotion would return with more force in the years to come.

Toby Green's history 'Inquisition: the Reign of Fear' is published by Macmillan